Give a lot of credit to writer-director Mike Binder for making The Upside of Anger a film that is funny, smart and a stellar showcase for Joan Allen, one of the best actresses working today. Throw in a winning performance from Kevin Costner, and you're looking at one of the year's more pleasant surprises thus far.
Allen plays matriarch Terry Wolfmeyer, drowning herself in vodka after the departure of her husband. He has apparently taken off to Sweden with his secretary, leaving Terry and her four daughters (Evan Rachel Wood, Keri Russell, Alicia Witt and Erika Christensen) to fend for themselves. Wily and oft-soused neighbor Denny Davies (a nicely offbeat Kevin Costner) drops by to eat free food and drink with Terry, acting as a rather unreliable temporary father figure.
Denny is a retired baseball player who gets by on mass autographs and a radio talk show where he refuses to talk about baseball. This is perfect casting for Costner, who portrays Denny as Bull Durham's Crash Davis a few years and a lot of beers down the road. Costner hasn't been this loopy and likable since Tin Cup, but I'm not going to call this his return to form after a crap movie slump. His very-good Open Range from a couple years back gets that honor.
The friendship between Denny and Terry is what works best in this film: They are one of the more brutally honest and funny screen couples in recent years. A scene where Terry drives to Denny's place on short notice for sex is a major laugh-getter, and when the film takes more serious turns, Allen and Costner are up to the task. Both play their drunkenness for laughs without making Denny and Terry sad caricatures.
The majority of the film deals with Terry's relationships with her daughters, and this is where the film occasionally stumbles. There are four daughters, which means there are four stories to be told in addition to Terry's, and that's a lot of stories for one movie. Russell shines as the dancer daughter with a stomach ailment brought on by stress, even though her portion of the film is the sappiest. Wood, so good in Thirteen, is good yet again as the youngest daughter with sights set on a lost-cause classmate (Dane Christensen).
Binder himself dons his acting hat to play Shep, Denny's childish radio producer who hires, and dates, Terry's young daughter, Andy (Erika Christensen). One of the film's best moments would be Shep's showdown with Terry during a wedding scene, where he honestly states his reasons for dating younger women. Shep is a pathetic bastard, and Binder plays it to the hilt.
The film takes a surprise turn in its last minutes that has left some critics crying foul. I say, "No big deal." The surprise isn't all that surprising, and it doesn't take away from the humor and power of the film that precedes it. Is it unnecessary? Perhaps, but by the time it occurs, Binder has built up enough goodwill to make this arguably flawed moment survivable.
The Upside of Anger is a good effort all around, and it's great to see Costner cut loose again. In the end, this is Allen's movie. She makes Terry somebody we can root for, even when her behavior is disgusting. Given that this is April, she will most certainly be forgotten for next year's awards ceremonies, and that's a shame. Four months in, she's delivered one of the year's better performances.